Marco Focchi – A Championship Memory


One of the fields in which neurosciences prefer to exercise is memory. I use the term “exercise” because these are proper athletic exercises. There are actual memory competitions, and currently one of the most credited champions is Boris Nikolai Konrad, a neuroscientist that managed to memorize 280 words and 195 names and faces in 15 minutes. He had heard of mnemonic while in college, and thought that using it could facilitate his college efforts, it went so well that he started participating in competitions. Mnemonic isn’t the latest newness of the modern world, it dates back to Simonides of Ceos, who was able to recall the names of the guests at a dinner party after they were unrecognizable bodies, product of a collapse of the house where they were having dinner. He remember the names of each one by remembering their places on the table during the banquet. Mnemonic is a locus technique. It is required, for example, a house with many rooms, and in each of these rooms one can place the object that wants to remember; the tour by the rooms is done mentally allowing one to retrieve little by little the retained elements. Therefore, to recall is to retrace.  

The memory palaces that were built by the roman orators, Cicero being the most prominent example, are now transformed by the touch of neuroscientists into complex neuronal architectures. The brain of champions is analyzed with imaging techniques to find the connection schemas between neurons, revealing that – surprise! – the difference between a champion’s brain and that of a normal person is not so relevant.

Naturally, one could ask how memorizing lists of many names would be useful, other than to participate in competitions and tournaments. This kind of memory is made of lists, of discrete elements, that can be counted and objectified. The memory of life, unconscious memory, is completely something else. The memories that are relevant in the psychoanalytic experience are essentially the screen memories, that is to say, paradigms, relationship schemas that insist and reproduce themselves in the life of the subject influencing choices, decisions and orientation. The championship memory lacks the essence of live memory, that which accompany us in our moments of joy and pain: the ability to forget. We can’t remember anything if we can’t also forget.

The matter of concern is that neuroscientist, like those at the Columbia University, have started to think about the possibility to forget, but in their own way: they considered the possibility to forget the traumatic memories, disassociating – by means of a drug that it doesn’t exist yet, but it probably be the soon-to-come production – the experience of the sign that inscribed it into us. For example, if I’ve had been assaulted and in the meantime a dog was barking, the barking of a dog later in my life, out of the traumatic context, in a broad array of diverse day-by-day moments, will awaken the traumatic memory. Therefore, it’s about disassociating the barking of the dog from the fear of the traumatic experience connected to the assault.

One can immediately see what it is the problem: a memory, for neuroscience, is a manipulable object, it is not a subjective experience that is inseparable from me, that constitutes me and in that regard the issue is not getting rid of it, like an exceeding brick of a building, but finding a place for it, reinstating it in the essential rhythm of my life.

Translation: Carla Antonucci
Re-read by Lorena Hojman Davis


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